Just like the name suggests, the Chilean pine is a tree native to central and southern areas of Chile as well as the neighbouring zones of South East Brazil and western Argentina. It has been named the national tree of Chile and is a very old species, considered to be a living fossil. Chilean pine is part of the conifer genus Araucaria and the hardiest of them all.
Like its relatives, the Chilean pine is an evergreen tree with a shape resembling a pyramid. It can reach a maximum height of 50 m, while the trunk grows to a diameter of 2.5 m. The leaves have a particular aspect that makes this tree easy to recognize. They overlap tightly with each other and completely cover the entire length of every branch. They have a spiny apex and a strong structure, with a dark green color and glossy surface. This strange look is considered impressive by some people, while others consider it weird and similar to a scaly reptile. Branches grow in horizontal tiers, with little secondary branching.
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Since each tree has either male or female cones, the Chilean pine is a dioecious species. Male cones can reach a length of 12 cm with a width of 6 cm and have a cylindrical shape resembling a cucumber. The female ones look different and have a spherical shape with a diameter between 12 and 20 cm. Every female cone contains a maximum of 200 seeds, which look like an almond and are about 3 cm long and 1 cm wide.
When Chilean pine tree first reached Europe, where it was brought by the British naturalist Archibald Menzies, it received the curious name "monkey puzzle". The reason for the name is quite obscure but probably the Europeans imagined that monkeys and other wild animals would have a hard time to climb the tree to reach the cones, due to the intricate network of sharp leaves with an upward direction. However, no monkeys live in the range of the Chilean pine, so the name has no real basis. As a dioecious species, male and female cones are found on different trees, with the first ones producing pollen and the others producing seeds. Natives of the Mapuche culture name the trees pehuén or piñon araucaria and depended heavily on the seeds as a source of food. Today, the trees have become rare and the few forests that remain are protected. Harvesting the seeds for food is now prohibited. The Chilean pine is listed as an endangered species and protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
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The Chilean pine tree has an extremely long life cycle and can survive for up to 1200 years. It is very resilient to all the hazards of its natural habitat: landslides, strong winds and volcanic eruptions. Since the species is a relic from the Mesozoic Age, it might have the distinctive sharp leaves as a defence mechanism against dinosaurs. Not only the leaves resemble scales, but the trunk is also covered by scales and large diamond-shaped bark pieces, similar to the exterior of a pineapple fruit. The resin can be easily collected by making an incision in the bark. South American natives used the resin as a healing agent for ulcers and open wounds. The specific aspect of the Chilean pine tree makes it valued as an ornamental species, both in Europe and the USA. It is very popular for this purpose in the United Kingdom.
Chilean pine is known both as a source of food and for its medical benefits. The seeds can be compared to pine nuts and have the same soft texture and delicious taste. For medical uses, the resin is harvested after incising the trunk and believed to have a number of health benefits, especially to treat wounds and ulcers.
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Some authors believe that the native Araucanos used Chilean pine resin not only in the treatment of wounds but against other diseases as well, such as bone fractures, bruises, headaches, irregular menstruation, cold or lockjaw. It is certain that seeds were once a key part of the diet of the native tribes, due to the high amount of proteins and carbohydrates. It provides both a source of food and quality wood and is a popular garden tree choice.
The Chilean pine wood can be turned into lumber, used for floors, ship masts or turned into paper pulp. It has an average weight, with a light color and soft texture. It can't be exported, due to the rules of CITIES where it is mentioned as an endangered species in Appendix I, so it is only used in Chile and Argentina, where it is native.
The seed has a high content of starch and can be consumed raw or after cooking. It resembles a cashew nut due to the soft texture but the taste is similar to pine nuts. It is delicious and can be consumed in large quantities, it used to be a staple food for the local tribes.
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After boiling or roasting, the seeds of Chilean pine have a flavour resembling chestnuts. They continue to be eaten today, both by the native people and the descendants of European settlers. It is possible to ground the seeds into a flour that can be turned into bread or added to soups as a condiment. A fermented beverage named chavid is also brewed from the seeds.
The natural range of the Chilean pine tree is in South America, where it is an endemic species of the Andes Mountains. Chilean pine grows in the mountain range that separates Chile from Argentina.
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It can grow in any type of soil as long as it has good drainage but enjoys volcanic ones with mild acidity. In the wild it is a mountain tree, inhabiting forests at altitudes over 1000 m. Chilean pine can grow in both full sun and partial shade. The tall and straight trunks of the Chilean pines are a strange and spectacular sight in their natural habitat. They are often combined in mixed groves with Nothofagus pumilio, a deciduous species.
Indigenous tribes of Argentina and Chile still gather the edible seeds of the tree, which have a large size and resemble pine nuts in taste. The resilience of the species makes it an interesting prospect as a food crop of the future. It could be used in harsh oceanic climates, for example in Western Scotland, where no other nut tree can be cultivated. For a viable plantation, one male tree can pollinate a group of about six female ones. Such a small grove can produce thousands of seeds every year. However, the commercial production would require a long-term investment, since the tree grows very slowly and an orchard would only start to produce seeds after 30 or 40 years. In compensation, the yield would be large afterwards and the trees would live for about 1200 years.
The Chilean pine seeds are easily collected after the wind shakes the pine tree and makes the cones fall to the ground. In its native range, two species of parrots also knock the cones down as they feed on the seeds. The harvest season is in the autumn. The seeds have a long shelf life and can last about 9 months in a cool and dry storage location.